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Hunting Superman

From Darwinism to Transhumanism

BY Benjamin Wiker

July 6-12, 2003 Issue | Posted 7/6/03 at 2:00 PM

 

“Primo posthuman — the 3M+ edition — more comfort, better performance, lower price,” touts the advertisement. The primo posthuman is ageless, has replaceable genes, allows for various upgrades, contains an error-detection device, will run multiple viewpoints simultaneously. It is impervious to environmental damage, sports a “metabrain” and enhanced senses, and even includes gender changeability.

As of 2003, the primo posthuman is still on the drawing board, but given the rate of scientific advancement in nanotechnology, biotechnology and genetic engineering, proponents of transhumanism expect it to be a reality sometime within the next 50 years.

“What exactly is a posthuman?” you well ask. “Some kind of robot?”

No. It is the envisioned transformation of human nature by technology — not technology outside the body but a high-tech fusion of man and machine. This fusion, transhumanist advocates argue, will bring about the final phase of evolution, an eclipse of humanity and the dawning of a posthuman engineered techno-paradise.

We might be inclined to dismiss transhumanist devotees as yet another science fiction-induced group of harmless mooncalves, destined merely to play out their impotent, self-absorbed fantasies in Internet chat rooms, reechy out-of-the-way bars and occasional sparsely-attended conferences.

That would be a mistake. As will soon become apparent, we should be taking transhumanism with the utmost seriousness, a seriousness with which one prepares (to borrow from C.S. Lewis) for the Last Battle. To understand this urgency, we must look at the past, present and future of the movement.

Demise of Human Nature

Transhumanists believe they are heirs to Charles Darwin but claim to do him one better. According to Darwin, all species, including the human species, are the result of natural selection acting upon random variations in individuals.

In his famous Origin of Species, published in 1859, Darwin noted that domestic animal breeders were able to select for desired traits artificially and direct the transformation of cattle, pigeons, horses and dogs, creating all kinds of interesting new domestic species within a relatively short time.

Couldn't this same kind of rational, artificial breeding be applied to human beings?

Fearing public opinion, Darwin did not openly advocate the controlled breeding of human beings until the publication of his Descent of Man in 1871. By that time, his cousin, Francis Galton, had already coined the term “eugenics” to describe “the science of improving stock ... especially in the case of man,” a science that would “give to the more suitable races or strains of blood a better chance of prevailing speedily over the less suitable than they otherwise would have had.”

For Darwin, Galton and the rest of the eugenics movement, the point of eugenics was to remove the production and maintenance of human nature from the hands of chance. The blind forces of evolution had given us a good start, but to progress yet further we would have to take evolution into our own hands.

For Darwin, that meant we must “prevent the reckless, the vicious and otherwise inferior members of society from increasing at a quicker rate than the better class of men ...” because progress “depends on an increase ... on the number of men endowed with high intellectual and moral faculties.”

Thus we have the birth of two defining aspects of the transhumanist movement in Darwinism. First, human nature is not a cosmic given but represents a particular phase of continuing evolutionary transformation. Second, while human beings might through their own negligence sink lower on the scale of evolution, they could, through their own eugenic diligence, climb even higher, transcending the current givens of human nature.

Transhumanists believe they are heirs to Charles Darwin but claim to do him one better.

Techno-Eugenics

For transhumanists, a “new and radically different chapter of evolution is about to begin,” a “burst of self-directed hyper-evolution” where “we must leave the flesh and most of its evolved habits behind.” This will not be achieved by mere old-fashioned selected breeding but through enlightened self-fabrication. Further evolution entails “becoming one with our technologies, guided by our rational desire to become like our finest imaginary gods: eternal, omniscient, omnipotent.”

These are the aspirations of the movement, according to a transtopian Web site, transtopianism being one brand of the larger transhumanist movement. If such misplaced desires were confined to a few places on the Internet, we would have no reason to fear. But such is not the case. Transhumanism has proponents in much higher and more powerful places.

Just this June, in fact, there was a large conference at Yale University. “The Adaptable Human Body: Transhumanism and Bioethics in the 21st Century” was co-sponsored by the Yale interdisciplinary bioethics program's working group on artificial intelligence, nanotechnology and transhumanism. The conference speakers included a long list of Ph.D.s from prestigious institutions all over America, almost all of whom were outspoken advocates of the technical transformation of human nature.

For example, there was Gregory Stock, Ph.D., director of the program on medicine, technology and society at the University of California at Los Angeles’ School of Public Health and author of Redesigning Humans: Our Inevitable Genetic Future, Engineering The Human Germline and Metaman. Another was Gregory Pence, Ph.D., from the philosophy department at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, who testified in support of cloning before Congress in March 2001. Pence is the author of Who's Afraid of Human Cloning?and Brave New Bioethics.

Steering the conference was Nick Bostrom, Ph.D., co-founder of World Transhumanist Association, who taught at Yale but has since moved on to Oxford to become a British Academy postdoctoral fellow and a member of the philosophy faculty. The list goes on, and the lesson is that transhumanism has friends in high academic places.

But not just in academia. Transhumanist aspirations depend on the latest technology as applied to the human body, especially in the area of medicine. Thus, its goals are entwined with all the advances in nanotechnology, biotechnology, genetic engineering and cloning. Indeed, in all too many cases, transhumanism is simply the explicit and refined form of the implicit philosophy of those who work in these areas.

These areas are well-funded, to say the least, and the transhumanist movement will grow as the technical advances in nanotechnology, biotechnology, genetic engineering and cloning grow.

The Last Battle

Because of the inevitable growth of technology directly and indirectly applicable to transhumanist goals, Christians must prepare themselves for direct and continual attack — and not just from transhumanists. The majority of people in the technologically advanced nations happily embrace all the latest comfort- and pleasure-producing paraphernalia and look to medicine to reduce or eliminate all suffering and extend life spans indefinitely.

Transhumanists promise all this and more — “paradise engineering,” a world voided of pain and saturated with technologically enhanced physical pleasures. According to David Pearce, co-founder of the World Transhumanist Association and head of BLTC Research (a transhumanist research and development company), “third-millennium bioscience allows us to rewrite the vertebrate genome, redesign the global ecosystem [and] deliver genetically preprogrammed well-being.”

The envisioned transtopia promises a hedonist heaven on earth and, indeed, is driven by a self-proclaimed “hedonist imperative” that strives to eradicate completely “the biological substrates of suffering.” Since transhumanists believe all suffering is biological in origin, the triumph of their doctrines will mean that “physical’ and 'mental’ pain alike are destined to disappear into evolutionary history,” including the phasing out of the “biochemistry of everyday discontents.”

In place of merely natural human beings, “matter and energy will be sculpted into perpetually life-loving super-beings,” whose “states of mind are likely to be incomprehensibly diverse by comparison with today"; yet, in such diversity, “all will share at least one common feature: a sublime and all-pervasive happiness.”

Needless to say, transhumanists are atheists and adamantly reject the pestiferous Christian belief in otherworldly happiness and the doctrinal belief in the necessity for suffering in union with Christ to ensure entrance into a heaven not of this world. Equally obvious, in contrast to Christianity, the only acceptable Eden is encased in hedonism.

As has already become clear in regard to genetic engineering and cloning, the battle line between Christians and transhumanists will be drawn, ultimately, upon one question: Is there such a thing as human nature or is “human nature” merely a passing phase in evolutionary history, one which we must transcend for our own well-being?

The battle will occur at every level of public debate and upon every conceivable issue, between those who regard human beings as made in the image of God and those who believe “we must evolve ... by literally becoming one with our technologies, guided by our rational desire to become like our finest imaginary gods: eternal, omniscient, omnipotent.”

To become like gods. Now doesn't that sound like a familiar promissssss?

Benjamin Wiker writes from Steubenville, Ohio.